Tonight, SyFy channel had a handful of the old Batman movies on. Not the 60s versions but the Tim Burton / Joel Schumacher ones from the 90s. And I sat here watching them, I realized how titanically bad Batman and Robin is as it puked all over my screen. I mean, I knew it was bad, but I don't remember it being 200-car-pileup bad. This is back when George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman were at the height of their careers and for some reason, they chose to participate in this half-baked abortion of a film. It was also the last meaningful vehicle in which Alicia Silverstone had any starring role and effectively terminated what had been a budding career. We all know Christopher Nolan resurrected the franchise a decade later with his Christian Bale-led Batman series (peaking in The Dark Knight) but this one really left a sour taste in many mouths.
But the other thing I realized how much of a superior film Batman Returns really is. In fact, it is the best Batman movie that's been made.
||I know the fanboys and general movie going audience is gaga over The Dark Knight, and with good reason. It's a great movie, with a good acting and a well-paced plot. But as a comic book movie, it's not quite as good as Batman Returns.
One, the more I watch these movies, the more I am convinced Michael Keaton was a better Batman than Christian Bale. Keaton came across as more self-assured. Bale's Batman was totally shaped by Alfred, Rachel Dawes, and Ras Al-Ghul. He never felt like his own man, and his weakness was all about following conflicting guidance from his mentors. Keaton's Batman exuded quiet confidence in himself; his doubts all came from questioning his place in the world at large and dealing, head-on, with the demons between his split existence. To me, it was more compelling.
Two, while Heath Ledger's Joker was a villain par excellence and was a truly awesome film performance, he – like Jack Nicholson's Joker in the earlier film – really overshadowed the hero in the movie. That may have something to do with the Joker, as he is widely regarded as the single best villain in the comic book world. On the other hand, Danny Devito's Penguin took the character away from the film viewer's memories of Burgess Meredith and his dapper, tuxedo-wearing jewelry robber, and turned it into a creepy, lecherous child murderer. Unlike the Joker, the Penguin was unquestionably the antagonist in the movie. He was fiendish and, at times, pitiable, but there was no doubt: the Penguin was bad. He never won over overtook the title character with the audience.
Three, Batman Returns had the perfect female foil. Never cared for Katie Holmes. Maggie Gyllenhaal did a better turn as Rachel Dawes (and is better looking) but the character always had an air of smug self-righteousness that made me dislike her. I mentioned Uma Thurman. She had absolutely nothing to work with as Poison Ivy; stilted dialogue and lousy costumes. Nicole Kidman and Kim Bassinger had little to do in their roles, save look pretty and be rescued. But Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman really shone. She played the role to the hilt: a broken woman with a single-minded obsession with revenge against those who had wronged her. Her rapid mood swings and tortured ramblings as Selina Kyle only added to the character's depth. Frankly Anne Hathaway's attempt at Catwoman was a hollow imitation. And no, it did not hurt that Pfeiffer was stunningly beautiful and wore the leather suit like a second skin. Meow, indeed!
Fourth, the plot was perfect. It was a blend between the whimsical nature of the comic and the more-serious, darker Batman stories of later times (first popularized by the comic The Dark Knight Returns). All of the devices and henchmen used by the Penguin follow a circus theme but it was almost satirical, mocking the silly origin of such decoration when employed by murderers. While the Penguin's plot to take revenge on Gotham City was over the top, it did not have the Rube Goldberg quality of the Joker's chaos plots in Dark Knight; from a feasibility standpoint, the Penguin's plot was probably more realistic (up until he employed the army of penguins with rockets on their backs). The political and business corruption as represented by secondary villain Max Schreck was a foil to Bruce Wayne as much as the Penguin and Catwoman were a foil to Batman – and both plotlines converged perfectly at the movie's climax. And of all seven Batman movies (four in the 90s, and three Nolan films), Batman Returns shares with Dark Knight the honor of being the only movies that do not end on a high note. Life ain't always fair, especially in comics, so that was refreshing to see a bittersweet ending.
Last, the dialogue. Much is made of the great lines in The Dark Knight, but truthfully, most of them belonged to the secondary characters: Joker, Alfred, Rachel, Jim Gordon, or Lucius Fox. In Batman Returns, the best lines occur directly between Batman/Wayne and another character, making the main character a participant (not a recipient) to the most effective lines in the show. The twisted mistletoe and kiss lines (as in the post title), which are reversed by Wayne and Kyle at opportune moments, were fantastic.
Not a popular opinion, I understand, but I just think Batman Returns is the superior film. If I have to model one of these movies to write a thriller that escalates and keeps the audience guessing the outcome, I might model Dark Knight. If I really wanted to write a movie with superior characters and a more realistic plot, I'd have to go with da Penguin movie.
As always, your mileage may vary.